Use of chemical weapons in Syria poses a severe challenge to the world community. The Obama administration proposes to meet this challenge through air strikes on Syrian government assets. There is grave risk that such action by the US and its allies would be counterproductive, leading to increased human suffering and potential blowback. Thus, governments around the world have a responsibility to pursue all available diplomatic options to resolve the Syrian crisis.
One, as yet untried, diplomatic option would be to work under the auspices of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to rapidly remove chemical weapons from Syria. Negotiation and implementation of this action would bring the Syrian government into close engagement with the world community, and would involve the presence of UN inspection teams. When this process is under way, any use of chemical weapons in Syria could be unequivocally attributed, allowing appropriate international response.
The first step would be to urgently convene a special session of State parties to the CWC. Any party could call for this step. The UK government may be an especially appropriate candidate for this role. On September 4th, Prime Minister David Cameron told the British Parliament: “Britain should use all its diplomatic muscle in discussions with those countries that have backed the [Syrian] regime”.
The session’s purpose would be to seek rapid accession to the CWC by States that are not yet parties, with special attention to Syria. At present, Syria, South Sudan, North Korea, Egypt, and Angola have not signed the CWC. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified, and are therefore not bound by the CWC.
If the session were successful, Syria would rapidly sign and ratify the CWC, accept the rapid removal of chemical weapons from its territory, and accept stringent inspections to verify its compliance. Why might the Syrian government agree to these actions? To some extent, Syria could be motivated by related actions by other countries, discussed below. The major motive, however, would be pressure from the Syrian government’s allies.
Russia could be important in this respect, but the primary actor would be Iran. While Iran is a firm ally of the Syrian government, Iran’s people have learned from bitter experience to abhor chemical weapons. Iran made a statement to the April 2013 CWC review conference, on behalf of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries and China, including the passage:
“The NAM CWC States Parties and China express their deep concern that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian Arab Republic. We underline that the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances would be reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community.”
Translation of this sentiment into an adequate level of pressure on the Syrian government could involve a bargain directly affecting four countries – Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Israel. Indirect participants would include the permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, UK, Russia, France, and China. The bargain would require each country to re-think entrenched positions and abandon some longstanding linkages among negotiating issues.
One part of the bargain would be that Syria, Egypt, and Israel rapidly become full parties to the CWC. In Syria’s case, there would be a special arrangement for rapid removal of chemical weapons from its territory. Implementation of the CWC in Egypt and Israel could follow a normal schedule. To allow this agreement, Syria and Egypt would have to abandon their longstanding refusal to accede to the CWC until Israel accedes to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and dismantles its nuclear arsenal.
In return, Israel would make concessions about its nuclear arsenal, such as those sketched below. Also, Israel would have to overcome its reluctance, over the past two decades, to ratify the CWC.
Another part of the bargain would be concessions by Israel regarding its nuclear arsenal, which is cited by Syria as a key justification for its own stock of chemical weapons. Israel’s elimination of its nuclear weapons is unlikely at present. However, there are less-stringent concessions that could make a CWC-focused bargain, as outlined here, tolerable to Iran, Egypt, and Syria.
One concession could be for Israel to abandon its longstanding position of nuclear ‘opacity’, acknowledging its possession of nuclear weapons and stating their purpose. Another concession could be a moratorium on Israel’s production of fissile material. These concessions would enhance Israel’s security, and could significantly improve the climate for an agreement that confirms Iran’s status as a non-nuclear party to the NPT.
Why might Israel participate in this bold venture? In fact, Israel’s government is already committed to negotiations of this type. At the generally overlooked 2008 Paris Summit for the Mediterranean, co-chaired by France and Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to a joint declaration. One provision was a commitment to pursue a Middle East zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
The bargain outlined here is a daunting target for negotiators. However, it offers a potential outcome that is substantially more attractive than the status quo or some of the potential outcomes of unilateral air strikes by the US.
*************This article has been co-authored with Dr Gordon Thompson, who directs the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.